When the Russian poet Ossip Mandelstam publishes his collection Tristia by 1922 the Bolshevik government had begun to tighten its grip on artists, urging them to use their talent for propaganda. Although he sympathized with the socialist cause, Mandelstam did not believe in writing for a political program. But he knew how serious the consequences of a refusal could be: all around him, artists fled or were victims of the state. His fellow poet Nikolay Gumilev had just been executed in 1921.
Tristia was a subtle rebuke to Bolshevik bullying: instead of glorifying the Soviet Union, Mandelstam mined ancient Greek mythology for themes of love, beauty, death, and eternal life. He seemed to achieve some transcendence of the chaos of his own country – and perhaps of his own mortality, of which he must have been so keenly aware. Mandelstam eventually suffered torture, exile and imprisonment, and died in a transit camp at the age of 47.
“The Necklace” – first published in Tristia and translated by Christian Wiman for Atlantic in 2012 — invokes Persephone, whose nickname was Melitodes, or Honey. Persephone is the queen of the underworld, but she is also the goddess of spring. his presence brings life after dead winter back to Earth, creating the seasons. Bees are a perfect symbol for such cycles. Some ancient Greeks believed them to be reincarnated human souls. And bees, whose lifespan is short-lived, pollinate plants and produce honey before they die, allowing other creatures to thrive.
Here, Mandelstam imagines a necklace – a gift, like an offering to the gods – made from bees that perished while turning honey into sunshine. “You cannot unmoor an unmoored boat,” he writes, “the fur-clad shadows cannot be heard, / Nor terror, in this life, subdued.” This poem is a call for mercy. It is also an expression of the hope that, even if darkness cannot be driven out of humanity, some sweetness might flow from it. Before death, he says, we must harvest what we can of love: “what remains for us and of us”.
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